Dir. Michael Haneke. France. Austria. Germany. 2012.

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53 years ago Emmanuelle Riva played a beautiful young Frenchwoman visiting Japan in Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour.  20 years ago she played an elderly woman with dementia in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue.  Now she links those two films, dropping the “Hiroshima mon” and playing an even older woman with Altzheimer’s in Michael Haneke’s Cannes prizewinner Amour.  She shares top billing with another French veteran, Jean-Louis Trintignant (also in Kieslowski’s trilogy), with combined ages of 166.

The film opens with firemen breaking into an expensive Paris apartment and discovering the body of an old woman, obviously dead for some time.  The rest of the film recounts the events leading up to this.  Georges and Anne are retired musicians, leading a comfortable concert-going life, when one morning Anne has a stroke.  As her health rapidly declines, and she refuses to go back to hospital, Georges lovingly tends to her every need, resisting every practical suggestion from their daughter (Isabelle Huppert, a mere stripling of 57).  As the film progresses Georges becomes more erratic in his behaviour, brusquely sacking a home-help nurse and becoming a little obsessed with a pigeon who gets into the apartment.  I shall not give away the ending.

The first thing to be said is that both actors (all three, if Huppert is included) are absolutely magnificent; Trintignant was persuaded out of retirement to take this role, and his noticeable limp throughout the film is due, apparently, to a motor-cycle accident.  The camera is static through long uncut scenes, entirely taking place inside the apartment except for a scene at a concert.  Their haunted faces, increasingly distorted in the case of Anne, etch themselves on the viewer’s mind.  There is not as much medical detail as I had expected for this difficult (but for many of us unavoidable) subject, and at no point was I tempted to avert my eyes.  The only music we hear is diegetic (originating from the events of the film itself), which gives emphasis to the stark subject-matter and saves us from unwarranted sentimentality or melodrama. 

Haneke is regarded by many as the best European director working today; of his past films I particularly relish Hidden and the lesser-known Code Unknown.  He is like Hitchcock, carefully working out every detail beforehand and eschewing improvisation or any accidental intrusion during shooting (one almost gets the impression that the aforementioned pigeon had been carefully trained).  This is quite unlike, say, Renoir or Rossellini, or indeed Paul Thomas Anderson who stated that he “makes it up as he goes along” (see my review of The Master).  Haneke is brilliant at creating and sustaining suspense, and even Amour is a kind of thriller: we are on tenterhooks to see how it pans out, while knowing that Anne inevitably dies.

I strongly recommend Amour for those who like the way Haneke makes his films hard to watch (his early film Funny Games is notorious in this respect).  And those who don’t, should probably avoid it.  Amour is hardly a date-movie.

A piece of trivia: in one scene Anne is leafing rapidly through a photo-album, and I’m almost sure I spotted a still from Rohmer’s My Night With Maud, starring a much younger Trintignant.  Some, or all, of the other photos may well have been stills from the two stars’ earlier films.

Alan Pavelin

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